Following is an excerpt from “Absolute Zero,” a story in the new collection, Madagascar: New and Selected Stories, from faculty member Steven Schwartz (click through for full excerpt). You can also find another story from the same collection, titled “The Theory of Everything,” at Electric Literature, with commentary from fellow faculty member Robert Boswell.
Every morning before school, Connor ran four miles in the desert with the Marines. They did push-ups and bear crawls on the lawn in front of the recruiting center and shouted Oo-rah! at the top of their lungs. He’d shaved his head, his scalp as smooth as his mother’s, only she was going in one direction and he . . . well, he didn’t know where he was going. Since he was only seventeen, a year younger than most of his graduating high school classmates because he’d skipped eighth grade, he’d have to have his mother’s consent to join up. So far she’d been lucid enough when it came to this particular matter to shake her head no and vigorously refuse. “Over my dead body,” she said, not without irony. “I will stay alive as long as it takes to see that you don’t throw away your life.”
She wanted him to go to college at Arizona State and live with his Aunt Lyla and Uncle Sebert in Scottsdale. His sister, meanwhile, pregnant and single, would inherit the house until Connor turned twenty-eight, when he would receive his part of a trust fund. Connor figured by that time he might be dead himself. He was philosophical about it. When Sergeant Kenner, the Marine recruiter, tried to reassure him that he wouldn’t automatically be sent to a war zone like Iraq or Afghanistan—after all, Marines were stationed across the globe—Connor said he would volunteer. Sergeant Kenner studied him for a long moment. “You, my friend, are exactly the kind of person that makes a leader.” He further explained that the Marines didn’t go after people like the Army. “Proud men come to us,” he said. “They want to be Marines, and we’re here to help them meet that challenge.”
Connor had to admit no one had ever called him a leader, and he was flattered, manipulated he knew, but nevertheless enamored. He started showing up at the recruiting station and hanging out with the other potential recruits, called poolees, and the occasional soldier home from active duty. These were infantry grunts who had come back from Iraq and would soon be heading out again to Afghanistan. They made room for Connor at the card table—penny ante—in the rec area with its chin-up bar and free weights. They nicknamed him “Con,” such an obvious diminutive yet no one had ever called him this. They included him in their touch football games, more like touch with hockey checking, and swarmed him when he caught a stretched-out, finger-tip touchdown pass. They even pimped his ride, the Geo, sort of: buying him a chrome license plate holder with a placard that said THE CON. He put it on the front of the Geo and felt ridiculously proud of it and their acceptance.
Eventually, when they took his presence for granted—he was spending more and more time here—they told stories about Iraq, of dead bodies rotting in the sun and bursting apart before it was safe enough to clear them; of children missing limbs and spitting at them when they tried to help; of attacks by hajis—what they called all Arabs—dressed in military uniforms only to blow your head off in the span of a handshake; of Iraqi houses with trip wires in their front yards that wiped out whole patrols; and the comparatively mundane complaints: three weeks in the field without a shower, blistering sandstorms, scorpions and sand fleas. Did that mean they hated what they did? No, they hated those people who didn’t support them, the anti-war scum. It didn’t matter if the protestors said they were on their side but against the war. They were traitors.
Connor’s mother, meanwhile, was one of these traitors. She’d made sure his name was taken off the list of eligible high school students so military recruiters wouldn’t call. She had regularly covered the back of the Geo with anti-war bumper stickers—OLD HIPPIES FOR PEACE, WAR IS NOT PRO-LIFE—before Connor scraped them off. And until she became too weak to do so, she’d gone every Wednesday to Patriot Park at the corner of Central Avenue and Washington Street and joined a peace vigil. If there was one thing that drove her crazy, it was his wish to become a Marine.
“It’s your father, isn’t it?” she asked him. “Is that what this is all about? You’re looking for acceptance from other men because you never got it from him. I’m right, aren’t I?” She rarely spoke about Connor’s father, who had left the family when Connor was five. He hardly remembered the man. He’d last heard from his father when he wrote from Florida on Connor’s eighth birthday, some big land deal he was working on there—he’d bring Connor down soon and they’d go deep sea fishing. Connor sent him back his first poem: Moo moo goes the sad cow. Neigh neigh goes the pretty horse. Heh heh goes the zoo daddy.
His intention to become a soldier was the only subject that got his mother revved up and focused. Whereas she might ask him to go to the store and get her more . . . and here she’d brush her finger against her front teeth, finally coming up with the word, or so she believed—cleanser!—her brain cells worked with furious intact precision at trying to stop him from enlisting. “You have to promise me,” she told him. “You have to promise right now that you won’t do this to me.”
“I can’t promise,” he said. “You know I can’t.”
“Why not? I’m your mother. Doesn’t a condemned person get a last wish?”
“Jesus, Mom. Stop already.”
“Just do it,” his fat and pregnant sister said. “You owe it to Mom.” They were all sitting in the living room. His mother’s wig, this one a reddish copper color, was askew at a rakish angle.
“Stay out of this,” Connor had warned. “You can’t talk.” That is, talk about making mistakes. His sister’s one-night stand in a club had resulted in a child she insisted on keeping. He was going to be an uncle, his mother was dying, his sister was unmarried, and all he wanted was to make his mother sign the papers on the coffee table in front of her.